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Are Magic Mushrooms the Answer to the Mental Health Crisis
Exploring the benefits and challenges of integrating psychedelics into
traditional mental health treatments
Even before the global pandemic, mental health issues were endemic in many parts of the world. Rates of anxiety, depression and addiction having been skyrocketing in recent decades, and many experts argue traditional treatments, including behavioral and pharmaceutical therapies, haven’t been as effective as they once seemed. Meanwhile, introduction of new modalities and alternative approaches to mental health care have been few and far between.
This crisis has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. For example, psychiatrist and mental health advocate David Goldbloom notes in his book We Can Do Better: Urgent Innovations to Improve Mental Health Access and Care1, a poll was conducted early in the pandemic among nearly 2000 Canadians, revealing “almost half felt worried or anxious, and only 6 percent felt happy.”
Half of those surveyed indicated that the consequences of COVID-19 negatively impacted their mental health; Goldbloom stressed “that doesn’t mean half of Canadians have become mentally ill.” Rather, it indicates “it is actually normal to not feel normal.” Even so, he continued, “we cannot lose sight…of the one in five Canadians with mental illness before the pandemic.”
Part of the challenge, Goldbloom explained, is that “few other areas of medicine are as shrouded in uncertainty as psychiatry—from what causes mental illness to what are the most effective treatments—or as mired in controversy about diagnosis, its role in society, and even its theoretical underpinnings.”
As a consequence, it’s been especially hard to balance uncertainties with providing effective care to those who are suffering. “But,” Goldbloom said, “it’s vital we try.”
So, if what we’ve been doing isn’t working, what can we do differently to resolve the mental health crisis?
Psychedelics and disrupting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves
One controversial alternative is explored in a recent BBC documentary. “The Psychedelic Drug Trial: A Cure for Depression?”2 chronicles a 2019 drugs trial in which a team of British researchers embarked on a risky undertaking, “pitting the leading antidepressant against one of the oldest drugs known to man”: psilocybin.
The resurgence of research on psychedelics in the treatment of mental health issues slowly emerged in the early 2000s. In 2012, a brain imaging study revealed psilocybin (a class of hallucinogenic drugs synthesized from a Mexican mushroom) “disrupts part of the brain known as the default mode network.” This is part of the brain responsible for the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are, and that is also responsible for depression.
The 2019 trial involved a treatment with traditional psychotherapy supplemented with psilocybin or SSRIs, the leading class of pharmaceuticals prescribed for depression. The sample size was small – 59 recruits who suffered long term depression – and was divided into two groups. Neither of the groups was aware the course of treatment they’d be receiving.
As psilocybin temporarily disrupts the sense of self, a person who suffers from depression is able to experience new connections that can shift their perspective and sense of being in radical ways. Though it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Dr. Rose Watts, the clinical psychologist who oversaw the trial, warned one patient, “The experience can be really uncomfortable. We want to make sure people understand how intense it can be.”
But the results can also be positively life changing. The participants who received the psilocybin treatment described radical shifts in perspective that buoyed them with a lasting sense of meaningfulness which had previously been elusive. This was a significantly different experience from those in the trial who were treated with SSRIs.
Watts explained why that is: “I would consider most medical treatments of depression as managing the symptoms of depression the best they can. And then I would see psilocybin as about opening people up so they can receive much, much more from the world.”
If the outcome of these small studies shows such promise, why is treatment with psychedelic drugs so controversial?
Integrating psychedelics into traditional mental health care
One challenge is that psychedelics have been stigmatized and criminalized, despite promising results yielded in studies conducted over 50 years ago.
In her 2021 dissertation, A Trip to Save a Life: Psychedelics and the Untraveled Road to Recovery3, scholar Jessica Cadoch described what was essentially a smear campaign against psychedelics in the 1970s after the drugs became associated with the counterculture of the 1960s. This brought all medical research with psilocybin and other hallucinogens to a screeching halt, and any association with it became career-damagingly taboo.
While the history of mid-century research with psychedelics, and the subsequent backlash against it, is fascinating in its own right, Cadoch’s scholarship was more concerned with how to overcome the stigma and move forward. She wrote, “A new paradigm for the use of psychedelics is emerging in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom…This thesis lays out the ground from which this paradigm shift arises in order to provide a framework with which to ethically and critically examine it.”
In particular, Cadoch was concerned with how, in the midst of a crisis with opioids and other chemical dependencies, psychedelics like psilocybin can be used to treat addiction – and how it can be done so in a way that doesn’t encourage or exacerbate dependency and abuse.
She explained, “as we experience this psychedelic renaissance and psychedelic substances become more commonly used as treatments, it is important to address the ethical dimension before their use becomes normalized across the realms of biomedical science and popular culture.”
Addiction treatment with psychedelics can cause an internal conflict for those in recovery. Cadoch quoted one person who asked, “can I still be considered to be ‘in recovery’ from alcohol and cocaine use if I occasionally ingest psilocybin-containing mushrooms?”
Such concerns inspired Cadoch to wonder, “if psychedelic substances are reframed as medicinal rather than illicit substances, how will this change the way in which groups like Alcoholics Anonymous understand the term ‘drug’?”
While Cadoch acknowledged the multitude of ways this class of drugs can benefit those suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and other mental health issues, she noted “psychedelics aren’t ordinary drugs.”
Rather, healing with these substances “relies on the long-term personality changes induced by the psychedelic mystical experience,” which Cadoch argued falls into the category of “spiritual growth” rather than “biomedical intervention.”
Cadoch ultimately concluded there are still more questions than answers when it comes to integrating psychedelics into traditional mental health treatment and care. And this means abundant opportunities for today’s students and researchers to contribute to the discussion and direction of this radical paradigm shift.
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Notes (all resources available from ProQuest One Academic):
1. Goldbloom, David. We Can Do Better: Urgent Innovations to Improve Mental Health Access and Care, Simon & Schuster, 2021.
2. The Psychedelic Drug Trial: A Cure for Depression? Eastall, S. (Director). (2021, Jan 01).[Video/DVD] BBC Worldwide.
3. Cadoch, Jessica. A Trip to Save a Life: Psychedelics and the Untraveled Road to Recovery. McGill University (Canada), ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2021. 28731172.